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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Apollo Theatre  Spring 2017

A wild (and Wilde) ride of wit and invention, Tom Stoppard's 1971 comedy here gets a revival (first seen at the Menier last autumn) that gets just about everything right and some things even better than the original production. 

Puns and wordplay abound, literary allusions are sprinkled everywhere, reality and memory repeatedly clash, the general air is of general silliness, and in the midst of all that there is room for some serious and thought-provoking debate on the nature and purpose of Art. 

Stoppard's premise is the very opposite of what Hollywood calls High Concept that is, it takes some background explanation. 

Stoppard discovered that James Joyce, Lenin and the dada artist Tristan Tzara were all in Zurich during World War I, along with a minor British consular official named Henry Carr, and that Carr and Joyce acted together in an expats' amateur production of The Importance Of Being Earnest. 

From this, Stoppard pictures Carr fifty years later trying to write his memoirs, but getting it all fuddled up with things he's read since, things he wishes had happened, things he misremembers, and the plot of Earnest. 

And so his Joyce is a riverdancing stage Irishman who speaks in limericks and who he keeps calling Doris or Janet. Tzara keeps morphing into Wilde's Jack/Earnest, and the women he can only remember as Cecily and Gwendolen sing their politely catty encounter to the signature tune of vaudeville comics Gallagher and Shean. 

A conversation between Tzara and Joyce takes the shape of a chapter from Ulysses, and Lenin, who Carr never actually met, is represented by undigested chunks of history book text. Scenes repeatedly begin only to be aborted and started over until Carr the memoirist hits on a version he likes. 

And all of it is filled with wordplay so that there is hardly a sentence in the entire script that does not contain a laugh-generating joke, pun, malapropism or double entendre. 

Every once in a while the play does slow down just a bit, to allow the four men to argue in various pairings about Art and War and Life. And unexpectedly, because Stoppard has lulled us into expecting no more than surface wit, the debates are good, showing that a play that revels in its creativity is self-aware enough to consider the value and function of that inventiveness. 

The effectiveness of those sequences of serious thought presented in comic ways is one of director Patrick Marber's major accomplishments in this thoroughly entertaining revival. 

I've seen the play three times before, and honestly hadn't remembered any of the debates, so buried had they been in the play's verbal razzle-dazzle. 

The young Stoppard was often criticised for being all cleverness and no content, and we must be grateful to Patrick Marber for reminding us that Travesties really is About Something. 

(Marber and Stoppard have also finally solved one of the big problems in the original text. As I mentioned, all Carr can know of Lenin is what he read, and so the play's section devoted to the Russian was originally an extended textbook lecture.

It made the point, but was theatrically dead, dropping the energy level disastrously. 

Almost immediately and over the years since Stoppard has repeatedly fiddled with that sequence, and he and director Marber have finally got it right, editing the lecture down, staging some of it in the cartoon style of the rest of the play, and punctuating it with interruptions from the other plot lines.) 

Tom Hollander makes Carr amiably absent-minded even as a young man, though he lacks the presence needed to be the anchor and centre of the play. 

Peter McDonald smoothly takes Joyce from caricature to eloquent debater, while Freddie Fox could afford to be even more clownish as Tzara. 

Forbes Masson as Lenin, Sarah Quist as Mrs Lenin, Clare Foster and Amy Morgan as Cec and Gwen, and Tim Wallers as a phlegmatic valet straight out of Wilde all serve the play generously without being given much opportunity to shine individually.

Gerald Berkowitz

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